Primary Colours: Three Canticles for Women's Choir and Piano

Program Notes:

Text: Miriam Waddington, used with permission from Jonathan and Marcus Waddington World premiere
Commissioned in loving memory of Jean Robinson by her family for Elektra Women’s Choir with Caitlin Robinson, mezzo-soprano

Conductor Notes:

We commissioned this work from Kathleen Allan for our May 2017 concert featuring women composers. I wanted her to write something substantial for this occasion and, after exploring various texts, agreed on a suite of three pieces on 1981 poems of a pioneer in Canadian poetry: Miriam Waddington. Superbly crafted for the voices and piano, this work sets Waddington’s intimate and unexpected, grown-up imagery in flowing musical form. I’m always looking for music that takes us on a journey, and this set of three movements does. My singers adore performing it, and we featured it at both the World Symposium on Choral Music in Barcelona and Podium 2018 in Newfoundland. This is a medium-difficult work that keeps vocal ranges varied and healthy, and uses word stress that really works.

Composer / Arranger Notes:

“Primary Colours” provided me with an opportunity to engage with the work of a seminal female Canadian poet, this time on my largest continuous choral composition to date. Acknowledged as the first major female voice in Jewish-Canadian poetry, Miriam Waddington was a trailblazer and a visionary. Her poem Primary Colours uses haunting and unusual language to paint visceral depictions of each stage of life: “Being Born” (red), “Living” (blue), and “Dying” (yellow). I tried to do justice to the strength in her language by taking some compositional risks, harmonically, rhythmically and texturally, while staying true to Elektra’s smooth and seamless sound. I’m very grateful to Miriam Waddington’s sons, Marcus and Jonathan, for granting me permission to use their mother’s poetry for this work.


This lists any discs, concerts or collections where this piece is included.



1 . Being Born

Be red,
a red of space
and stretch,
a flow,
a burst of

And now
reverse, contract,
to interpoint:
shift darkness
into out or in
until you have
a hearse,
a box, a cage,
with nets and loops
of leaves, with pods
of seeds.

Then move
in protoplasmic
through streaming
of cell and cellicle;
through careful
barriers of bone
and storms
of blood,
past cartilage
and hinge,
past loose vestigial
wings and
dangle from torn
ligaments and broken
muscle strings.

you are or ever
were or who,
made old or
born new,
polish space;
rake up the
summer, loosen
Plant seeds until
glorious at last
you hang
upside down from
sky’s umbilicals.

2. Living

Be blue,
a blue of fathomless,
a spray of far,
a gleam of
absent sunlit
highs and
glittering echoings,
grab the empty
edge of skies,
swing wide,
and plunge
to blanching

Now write
your hieroglyphs
on snowman’s
your glaciers to
sleeping space,
an orange song
and circle it
with canticles
of blue;
pack up the forest
and consign
its hundred owlish
eyes to earth
in nailed crates
of night.

Or slide
some measured
through open window frames;
then wake the
dreaming dead
and touch
their breath
with stars.

Before you leave,
sweep the blue
sawdust up
into a heap,
and with clean
brushes scatter it—
through a thousand
radiant doors.

3. Dying

who are you
Tuwhit tuwhoo
I am I,
yellow and
you are you.

you are the
sound’s horizons,
its early
orisons unpacked
from vats
of dew.

And yellow,
you are the
golden bar
the topmost

You are also
the fertile toad
of the yellow
swollen day,
you are yellow;
the shrunken
pearl of the
loudly yellow